Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three books of poetry: Lucky Fish, winner of the Hoffer Grand Prize for Prose and Independent Books; At the Drive-In Volcano; and Miracle Fruit. Poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Quarterly West, New England Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, and Tin House. She has been awarded an NEA Fellowship in poetry, the Glenna Luschia Prize from Prairie Schooner, and the Angoff Award from The Literary Review. She is professor of English at State University of New York at Fredonia.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes like the Sirens sing in her favorite folktale, The Odyssey. Only she lulls her reader not to their death, but to transcendence. It was a true pleasure reading her poetry collections and I am thrilled she accepted my request for an interview.” In this interview, Aimee discusses the influences of life on her writing, and reflects on how she cultivates poetry from the mundane.
Superstition Review: In an interview with Robert Lee Brewer for Writer’sDigest.com, you stated, “Mother Nature is the greatest poet of all. I just take my cues from her. There’s no way I could ever top the poems she gives us every single day. Just step outside and look around.” What a beautiful thought. In what ways do you attempt to pay homage to Mother Nature in your writing?
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: Thank you—‘paying homage’ is not really something that I am conscious of when I write. In fact, ideally, I’m not very purposeful with intent in the first drafts of my writing. For me, it’s only upon a much later reflection that I make specific choices with regard to the line and diction of a poem. Sometimes I only recognize the tone or mood of a poem when the poem is long done, and even then sometimes it’s still a mystery!
SR: In the same interview, you advise that “the biggest mistake one can make is assuming that the “I” of the poems is really you. You like to think of it as a composite or a sort of mosaic of a person, who just happens to have some similar qualities to you, but is not really you.” Could you describe your process when you sit down to write a poem? How do you maintain balance between the real world and poetic license?
AN: 99% of my poems have started with an image that sets off some sort of spark and that spark conjures up language and connotations that I could never have predicted. The other half percent is from the rare occasion when I have a solid title for a poem first, and the last half percent is seeing what remains in my notebook after all the cross-outs and scribbles.
SR: You’ve said in the past that you draw inspiration from science as well as from folklore. Is there a myth or folktale in particular that made a lasting impression on you?
AN: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The collection of illustrated Greek myths from D'aulaires. It’s killing me to have to name one, but I loved reading about the wrath of the goddesses—Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, and Artemis in particular.
SR: In your collection, Lucky Fish, “The Feathered Cape of Kechi” recounts the brief tale of a boy transformed by the power of his father’s greed. Can you share your inspiration for this poem?
AN: The initial images of a cape made out of feathers was from an exhibit from the Harvard Museum of Natural History and how I thought it was so heavy and awkward—I couldn’t imagine a boy being able to stand tall with the weight of that leather and feather, so I began to imagine the figurative weight of what it means to have such a ‘gift’ from a parent figure.
SR: “Two Moths,” published by Poetry Magazine, is an exquisitely written poem that laments the atrocity that is child sex slavery. Will you talk about how you found your way to this poem? The closing image of the moths is stunning. Did that present itself early or late in your writing process?
AN: Thanks so much—that means so much, as that poem was the result of hours of reading interviews and documentaries about human trafficking in India. As I assembled my first three collections, I took care to select poems that included hopefully stunning and beautiful imagery from the environment. In the poems I’ve been writing the last couple of years, I hope that imagery from my poems are still arresting, but in a way that helps the reader to look outward in a more global way. Right now, I’m being drawn to poems that help us travel (including to some uncomfortable places) around the world, but that situate ourselves as being part of a larger community without feeling lost. This is what I seem to be scribbling at any rate—a big and lofty goal, I know and one that I am formulating exclusively for this interview because like I said, when I show up to my desk to write, I can’t think about that ‘larger picture’ or I will just freeze looking at the blank page. It’s the image, the line, the breath, and the white space that help me stay focused on the poem at hand. The what or why of a poem for me comes much much later, if at all. The moths appeared very late in the drafting process of this poem. I knew I had wanted to use an animal of some sort to represent a smudged eye from the combo of makeup and crying, and then I knew I wanted to use an insect, then a butterfly to conjure up the idea of transformation—but couldn’t quite put my finger on a winged insect that had a visual impact and also fit with the image I had in mind. I checked in with a relative in India who has a biology degree, and he suggested a silk moth and the minute he said it/ I heard it, with that short ‘o’ sound, I knew that was it.
SR: Your poem, “Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill,” also from Lucky Fish, is composed of lines from letters you received from high school students. What gave you the idea to combine these e-mails into a work of poetry? What do you hope to impart on young readers of this piece? Did you ever write a poem that really didn’t have a deeper meaning but everyone still tried to give it one anyways?
AN: Too funny—well, first, I am always drawn to punchy, chewy pieces of dialogue or ads, etc. I can’t help it. After receiving dozens of these emails, I noticed some repeated sentiments, almost chant-like, so to me, when reading all of these student emails together, I was very much drawn to the sounds first, content later. Of course I found the humor of dozens of high school students telling me quite openly and honestly what they thought of my first book and I was truly charmed and amazed at the lack of filter in their responses. The poem itself is just a tiny fragment of various responses that I received in a 24 hr period, but I think Annie Dillard talked about found poems best when she said, “…Turning a text into a poem doubles that poem’s context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles.”
SR: In an interview with David Winter from The Journal, you extol the process of revision. “I love and live for revision! Love it.” How has your approach to revision changed throughout your career? Can you offer advice to emerging writers on the process of revision?
AN: My approach to revision has mostly stayed the same over the years, although with two little ones running around the house, I’d add that it’s a slower process than it once was. But I still revel in it, it still brings me delight and agony all at once. It’s where I get to play with words and sounds and white space, and I quite welcome the slowing down and re-seeing that revision gives me these days in a world that values the quick and easy. I can’t pretend I don’t love that concentration and near-meditation over singular words and lines.
SR: Recently, you released a fifth collection of collaborative poems titled Lace and Pyrite. Would you share the premise of this collection? Would you describe your collaboration with Ross Gay?
AN: The collaboration was born of an impulse of wanting to write as the spring semester ended (we are both English professors) and for me at least, to break out of a rare time when I was feeling stuck in my writing. We both released full-length books at the same time (in 2011) and I think both of us needed a jump start to get us primed for what would later be Ross’ newest collection—his best yet, I believe (due out in 2015), and a series of lyric nature essays that I was returning to after a long period of neglecting them for poems. We send letters via snail mail and occasionally over email to keep each other accountable with a sort of loose way of saying, “Your turn—show me what you got next,” Not in any sort of competition, but more of a way to record a full year in each other’s gardens during a time when weather patterns were running all amuck. In addition to being big fans of each other’s poems, even way before we ever met each other— both of us are avid gardeners and letter writers, so it seemed a no-brainer, too.
SR: What inspired the title, Lace and Pyrite?
AN: Ross and I knew we wanted to choose something that represented a perhaps unusual or unexpected pairing and every one of our suggestions would send us into fits of laughter. We couldn’t find just the right tone for both of our liking. At the eleventh hour, one of our editors from Organic Weapon Arts, Tarfia Faizullah (the other is the wonder that is Jamaal May) scoured the manuscript for a word pairing that would capture the darkness, the joy, and the delicacy of tending our gardens and our loved ones past and present. It also reminded us of the gorgeous pairing of Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright’s collected letters to each other, called The Strength and Delicacy of Lace, and I was humbled and ecstatic that she too was reminded of those poets in reading our chapbook.
SR: What is your opinion on e-books? When you see a kindle or e-version of your poems, do you experience them differently than you experience print versions? How do the trials of accommodating technology influence your writing process?
AN: I understand the convenience of it (I have an ipad for travel) for sure, but for me, nothing, nothing replaces the feel and the quiet ‘floop’ sound of paper when you turn it (floop, floop, floop-floop). And it’s a habit, but read with a pen in my hand. I’m always marking killer lines or whole stanzas of poems that I love.
SR: What are you working on now?
AN: Poems, always poems, but lyric essays are what’s cooking on my front burners now.
SR:What does your writing space look like?
AN: At this point in the semester (three weeks left!), it looks like a small simoom wind blew through it. I have a robin-eggshell room at home that is my office where none of my boys’ matchbox cars or Lego pieces are allowed— a true “room of her own,” but it’s also kid-friendly. My eldest knows which drawer he is allowed to browse, which is also full of old poem drafts to use as scrap paper, and boxes of markers and oil pastels for him to also work over next to me on the floor when I’m working at my desk. And so there are my sons’ drawings tacked up among favorite poems, endless To-Do lists, a necklace that needs re-stringing, a couple bottles of nail polish, various marble composition books (my fave notebook to write in) and some mini-moleskine notebooks to jot down images I’d like to remember and chew over. Let’s see—there are so many, too many medium stacks of books that I’m dying to read once the semester is over, some pilfered Halloween candy, and a couple of peacock figurines from my husband that bring me joy and calm when I see them. I’m sure if I look hard enough, I’d find an acorn or two gathered from a recent walk with my sons, or a Lego piece that ‘accidentally’ found its way to my office after all. Tiny offerings for my writing. In other words—it’s a full and happy mess.